Music and dancing have coursed through her veins since she was a toddler – and over the years, Joanna Willey has expressed that passion through both performing and teaching.  Now her dance and music academy is entering a whole new era, in the new, purpose-fitted studio she opened last September at the prestigious Royal Osborne Stable Block in East Cowes. We caught up with her to find out more about a life in the performing arts.

Having two parents and other family members who were entertainers on the Northern club circuit meant that Doncaster-born Jo was raised to the sounds of piano and guitar, and plenty of singing around the house.

Dad Russ worked full-time as an electrician and part-time as a one-man band and singer in the clubs, while mum Bernie performed as one half of a singing duo.

Always keen to follow whatever her older sister Claire did, Jo precociously took up piano lessons at the age of three and dance classes at four.

“It was just our normal back then, to have music going on all around the house” recalls Jo, whose younger brother, Chris, also inherited the musical gene.

As the three siblings progressed, their parents’ performing had to go on the back burner as they spent so much time ferrying the children around to their various classes.

For Jo, that included violin and piano lessons – although her heart always lay most firmly with dance, a fact that she attributes in large measure to the influence of her teacher, the highly-respected Doreen Ladley, who she unashamedly describes as her ‘idol’.

“I admired her so much and always thought she had the most amazing, inspiring job” says Jo, who spent hours of her childhood taking classes in everything from classic ballet and tap to jazz dancing and all types of national dance.

What she couldn’t have known at that stage was that she was destined to follow a similar path.

Classical roots

At the age of 12, Jo won a scholarship for the prestigious Chetham’s School of Music in Manchester, where she studied violin, piano and singing.  The IRA bombing of Manchester city centre in 1996 was a sobering time, and was what led to Jo’s move to St Mary’s Music School in Edinburgh for the last couple of years.

When interviewed by the school on her entry, it was suggested that her dancing might have to be sacrificed – but there was never any question in her mind of that happening!

“I did get that you had to be dedicated, but it annoyed me to think they were trying to make me give up dancing and  was adamant that I wanted to do music and dance equally” she says, “so I’d get home from school every weekend and literally go straight into a dance class”.

Girl power

Towards the end of her time at St Mary’s, Jo got the chance to combine her music and dance skills when she joined a girl band – and it almost took her life down a whole different road when a management company with links to Robbie Williams, wanted to sign them up for a five year deal.

After some thought the girls decided that five years was too big a commitment to make. “At the age of 17, it seemed like forever”.

Instead, Jo took a year out, during which she got some work as an extra on TV shows including Hollyoaks and Coronation Street, learned to drive – and decided that she didn’t want to do a music degree if it meant having to give up her dancing.

Her solution was to sign up for Performing Arts degree at Middlesex University, which brought all her interests together.

During her studies, she re-joined one of the girls  from her old girl band to play violin in a backing band for Jules Holland.  That ultimately led them to land a music backing gig for Robbie Williams, which involved appearing with him on Top of the Pops and the National Lottery Show, and providing the backing for two of his albums.

London life

It all added up to an exciting time in London – and this was also the period when Jo met her husband-to-be Mark, who  was at the same Uni studying criminology.

“It was a fun time to be in London so we decided to stay on there after graduation” she says.

Jo landed a job as a teacher of singing and dancing with the Borough of Tower Hamlets, and ultimately progressed to lead violin tutor for the Borough – but that wasn’t all she was doing.

With that ever-present vision of running her own dance school, she had set up Fusion Arts in East London, and spent her weekends tirelessly running classes.

It grew to the point where there were 120 students on the books and the school was putting on regular shows at the Broadway Theatre in Barking.

Even after she and Mark decided they wanted to relocate back to his native Isle of Wight in 2007, Jo continued to commute back to London every weekend to keep the classes running.  

However, during the week, she was starting to build her Fusion Arts enterprise here on the Island, starting at Northwood House with just a handful of students.

In 2009, the year that she and Mark were married, Jo took the decision to put the London school into the safe hands of a fellow teacher, who bought the business and changed its name – leaving Jo to concentrate all her energies on Fusion Arts Isle of Wight.

Island exclusive

Over the years, the Island-based academy has seen many of its students go on to appear in professional shows and compete to a high level at the All England Dance Competitions.

One former student went on to appear in West End shows The Bodyguard and Sister Act.

“Our students are multi-talented and we like to encourage that” says Jo.  “We have some who do several dance classes a week, plus violin and piano and I like to think that they leave us with a very grounded, all-round training that makes them highly employable”.

She’s thrilled with the new premises at Royal Osborne’s former stable block, which are expertly kitted out for purpose with an expensive sprung floor, mirrors and dance barres.

“There’s a great vibe about the place and everybody’s thrilled with it” she says. “It’s great not having to constantly have to think of booking other halls and it already feels like home”.

It’s also good for Jo’s family life with Mark and children George, 11 and Emma, 8, because the East Cowes studio is close to their home.

Not surprisingly, daughter Emma is a keen dancer and has recently got into Ballet Boost, which involves her in twice-monthly  trips to Ballet Rambert in London.  George meanwhile, is much more into football, and is often on the mainland playing in The Junior Premier League and Hampshire Cup matches.

After the disruption of lockdowns, Jo and her students are particularly looking forward to planning and booking a big show for September this year.

The academy’s adult choir is also getting back on track with its pop, musical and theatre repertoire, and according to Jo, is always on the lookout for new members.

Having recently become the first school on the Island to become Urdang registered means that the academy is well placed to access opportunities on the mainland for students.

But as Jo points out, there’s more to learning the performing arts than striving for stardom on stage or screen.

“We like to maintain a healthy balance between providing a quality training, and what we consider to be an equally important factor – offering a nice family-oriented community where our students can make some lovely memories” she explains.

“From my point of view I just feel blessed to have such an enjoyable job!”